by Hamish Bowles
Photographed by Bruce Weber
Stella McCartney admits that her quest for a country estate was essentially “a desperate mission to find land so that I could ride my horse. I wasn’t really interested in the building.” Some way through this mission, Stella met publisher Alasdhair Willis (who has since gone on to forge a career in furniture and product design, and now focuses on helming his own creative consultancy). Their affair may have been in its first bloom, but it was clearly serious as, in one of those “defining relationship moments,” they packed a picnic and went country-house hunting together. En route to a charming Wiltshire farmstead that was their intended destination, they bought a copy of Country Life, the weekly bible of British country matters and rural real estate. On its first page was a redbrick Georgian cube in a far less fashionable part of the countryside but set foursquare in a wide valley encircled by low hills. “So we just ended up there,” remembers Stella. “And it was very naughty. We went through the gate and sat in the field.” The irate retired major who owned the property came out and demanded that they leave.
Returning with realtor in hand, they discovered a house of solid if unromantic aspect fashioned for landed gentry during the endless reign of Mad King George (although an earlier wing dates to 1629). Later Victorian incumbents had planted some funereal fir trees, and into the twentieth century the vegetable garden was still so abundant that local villagers told Stella they remembered market stands set up at the gates for the surplus. Beyond this there had been little attempt at beautification inside or out, and latterly the fearsome major had retrenched to one room in the house, bricking up the kitchen’s vast inglenook fireplace and renting out bedsits upstairs. But despite the house’s desolate air, Stella was drawn to its handsome Georgian proportions and to the infinite possibilities of the land around it. And she and Alasdhair realized that it had the potential to be “a peaceful family home: It was very powerful.”
They were also undaunted by its sorry condition. “I’ve never bought a house that wasn’t falling apart,” says Stella. Nevertheless even she admits that it proved “a big, big job. We took off the roof and took the walls out, and there’s still a lot to do. Every morning I go, Oh, my God, is it going to last another ten years?”
When I first visited Stella here, six years ago, the house was startlingly prominent, set in a landscape of flat, furrowed fields. Less than a decade later, its setting is transformed almost beyond recognition. “We’re now trying to have it as a redbrick box within a garden within a garden within a garden,” says Stella, “trying to just gradually work our way through the land. Luckily we’ve got a lot of acres to take you on a journey.”
Today, high natural hedgerows twined with wild roses hide the house completely from view, and each facade has been softened and enhanced with gardens of differing and complementary character. “I grew up in the country, and I like being isolated,” says Stella. “So when I see a building on the horizon, I want to plant a tree in front of it. That’s my natural instinct.”
In 1969 a Life-magazine cover (now in Stella’s guest loo) trumpeted the case of the “missing” beatle, with a photograph of Paul and Linda tracked down on their remote Scottish farmstead. “We were literally in the middle of nowhere,” Stella remembers. “It was very Wuthering Heights–y. So I did respond to the landscape here because it’s hard to find remote in this day and age.
“We planted a million trees here,” she adds. “We’ve made another Eden.” The couple, who were married in 2003, were helped in this mission by their wedding guests, who were bidden to give trees in lieu of more conventional presents. From these they created a heart-shaped copse. Gwyneth Paltrow gave copper beeches. American relatives gave redwoods. Valentino and Tom Ford each grandly sent allées of linden trees from Germany. This arboretum has since been much embellished, guided by head gardener Anthony Tyler (who had previously worked on the estates of Lords Weinstock and Lichfield).
The gardens that now surround the house reflect the couple’s passion for Hidcote, the iconic Cotswolds garden created by the American-born Major Lawrence Johnston at the beginning of the twentieth century, famed for its grand gestures, its long views, and its series of contrasting environments and moods. “It’s nice when you take pieces of little memories with you and bring them back into your garden,” says Stella, who also admits that “my husband is the garden man. He creates the structure and has the visions for those gardens. I’m more concentrated on trying to get the home started. But with the plantings I figure when it comes to the color schemes.”
As in her fashion designs, Stella does not care for red or yellow and is drawn instead to the dusty pastels she loves—in fact, she even gave Tyler fabric swatches when they were planning the plantings. “You don’t always get what you want,” she says, laughing. “We had tulips that were supposed to be white, and they opened yellow. I couldn’t look at them. I was literally like the Queen from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: ‘Paint them white!’ ”
In turn, the gardens have generated ideas for her fragrances—and her work. “Sometimes I find a color in the garden I wouldn’t normally think of,” she says. “I enjoy them more in nature, and it makes me want to bring them into the collection. This spring I got a bit bored looking at fashion, and so I started looking at gardening books from the fifties and found these old botanical drawings and just got very inspired by them. So that became a bold part of our spring collection.”
The fecund Willises now have three enchanting children—Miller, five; Bailey, three; Beckett, two—and another on the way (who will arrive just in time for the launch of Stella’s new line of ethically made children’s clothing), and the north-facing kitchen front has a playground for them under an ancient spreading horse-chestnut tree. The eighteenth-century stable block beyond this is a future project to be tackled (it will be strictly for Stella’s horses; she considers barns converted to media or games rooms or indoor swimming pools irredeemably “naff”).
The formal entrance front is now embowered in wisteria. Its driveway encircles a lawn with a Davidia tree in the middle, its blooms like fluttering handkerchiefs. In the beds around, shadowed by the chestnuts, sycamores, and Wellingtonia pine trees of the Victorians, Stella has planted rhododendrons, magnolias, Portuguese laurels, South American azaras, and woodland plants. Mysterious yew hedges hide a secret room set with a rustic table and chairs for Lewis Carroll tea parties, and break the transition to a wild garden where one suspects Stella’s heart truly lies. Here, under the shade of a purple-leafed cherry plum, alliums, foxgloves, and oxeye daisies jostle among the tall grasses. In early spring this garden is a riot of bluebells, grape hyacinths, wild iris, and primroses.
After the seemingly haphazard charm of the Wild Garden, the Italianate Engagement Garden, conceived by Alasdhair, reveals his taste for structure and formality: A series of terraces linked by herringbone brick paths and water rills leads down to a reflecting pool filled with plump golden koi carp. The 1894 noisette rose Alister Stella Gray was chosen for obvious reasons, but its clusters of pale creamy blossoms are a perfect foil to the soft white of Mme Alfred Carrière. The predominantly white plantings here are a counterpoint to the redbrick garden walls that melt cunningly into clipped hedges of copper beech at the foot of the garden.
The East Front’s Anniversary Garden, set within the old brick walls of the house’s original potager, is the grandest of all. It was created in 2009, in time to celebrate the couple’s sixth anniversary. As a carved slate panel attests, it was a gift from Alasdhair to “my beautiful wife Stella.” Here the upper terrace of Mediterranean plantings (gnarled ancient olive trees found in Pisa are underplanted with artichokes, and bays from Belgium) and a shaded fernery look down on a diagonally quartered plan of blue and pink gardens. Pergolas tumble with Constance Spry roses, and the beds are aflutter with foxgloves, peonies, and the irises that are Stella’s latest passion (“just the best colors”).
“I grew up with gardens, but not like these,” remembers Stella, whose family also has a farm in bucolic Sussex. “You can’t plant a pea in Scotland!” she says, laughing. “In Sussex we had a beautiful garden—but it was very different. Ours is a quite traditional English garden. People don’t build gardens like this anymore,” she adds, “and I can see why! They are ridiculously expensive. It’s insane. It’s literally like building a house. But a garden becomes another room, an escape. Being out in a beautiful garden is nicer than sitting in a beautiful room, in my opinion. They bring you so much joy. We recharge our batteries in that environment. You have to feel extremely privileged to have a garden—I don’t take it for granted.
“It’s very much a work in progress,” she adds. “We are literally on the first steps of a journey, and that’s the beauty of the garden. You watch it mature and get better and better with age, and in five years that garden will be . . . pretty good.”